Scene 5 [Sierra Maestra, 1956-58]

The interval was real: an authentic «epistemological» break it could be said with Althusserian irony, since between departure for the Granma expedition and the victorious conclusion of the Las Villas campaign – which Guevara ended with the battle of Santa Clara which gave rise to his «legend» – there was an interruption in philosophical reflection on Marxism texts and reading itself of the texts. The interruption lasted a little more than two years, starting with the departure from Tuxpan (when the only person with a previous military experience was the Italian Gino Doné [1924-2008] who had taken part in the Resistance in Veneto), passing through occupation of the two main military strongholds in Havana – under the leadership of Che and Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-1959) – and ending with the establishment of the new regime headed by Fidel Castro. They were times of guerrilla warfare on the mountains and attacks in the cities, strikes, agrarian reform, expropriation and nationalisation, and the creation of a new state structure. Certainly not times of theoretical reflection, of study or of exploring the Marxian message.

Guevara’s Episodes of the Cuban revolutionary war and the memoires of various fighters give the perception of a profound disregard for the problems of political theory by the Castro leadership - in this very differently from what had happened in the first period of the Russian revolution - and one gets the impression that Che was closed in a sort of theoretical self-isolation. He admitted this himself in writing to the political figure that I personally consider to have been the most representative of the Cuban revolution (commander René Ramos Latour [«Daniel», 1932-1958]), who died in combat, but only after having stood up to Che in a controversy that deserves the greatest attention and instead, out of political hypocrisy, is almost always ignored or in any case belittled.

On December 14, 1957, Che wrote him a long letter, very critical of the positions of the llano (the M26-7 in the cities where Daniel had been the main leader after the death of Frank País [1934-1957]), stating:

I am, through my ideological preparation, one of those who believe that the solution of the problems in the world is to be found behind the so-called Iron Curtain and I consider this movement as one of the many provoked by the anxiety of the bourgeoisie to free itself from the economic chains of imperialism. I have always considered Fidel as an authentic leader of the left bourgeoisie, even if his personality is characterised by personal qualities of extraordinary value, which place him far above his class.

With this spirit I started the struggle: honestly without the hope of going beyond liberation of the country, willing to leave when the conditions of the next struggle turn all the action of the Movement to the right towards what you represent.

It would be too long here to explain the subject of the polemic that is however of the greatest interest for understanding the dynamics of the Cuban revolution, and in any case I have already done so in detail on other occasions. But at least two aspects must be kept in mind:

a) Guevara had come to consider himself definitively part of the communist (Soviet) camp and, as a Marxist , he considered himself an isolated militant within a bourgeois democratic movement like the M26-7 and, although he was engaged in an armed struggle, he was willing to trust only up to a certain point (here Hilda Gadea’s teaching was evident);

b) as early as 1957 he believed he could not conclude his revolutionary action within the Cuban movement and, with authentic prophetic spirit, announced his intention to leave for «other lands of the world» - as was to happen less than ten years later - if his ideological training should become incompatible with the ongoing revolutionary process. It was unequivocal proof of the internationalist spirit that animated his recent adherence to communism, although for the moment it coincided with the Soviet orientation.

It was much, but it was also everything. Nothing more of interest for our reflection on the evolution of his Marxism can be obtained from the years on the Sierra Maestra and the first formation of the new Cuban regime.

Second half

Scene 6 [from Havana to Moscow, 1959-63]

Orthodoxy Story

As is well known, the revolutionary government assigned commander Guevara with tasks of great importance, but all within the economic sphere as president of the Banco Nacional de Cuba, in a first phase, and then as Minister of Industry (at the time unified in a single ministry) until the day of his resignation became operational between the end of 1964 and the spring of 1965.

He was also entrusted with important missions abroad which he carried out almost as a real foreign minister – at the United Nations, the Organisation of American States (Oas), the Comecon countries, the new African nations and various national liberation movements – becoming a sort of «itinerant ambassador» of the Cuban revolution. This very important part of his government activity goes beyond our reflection. Practically all biographies of Che speak about it, but for an overview and a direct testimony, I recommend in particular Caminos del Che by commander «Papito» Jorge Serguera (1932-2009) who, thanks to his total identification with the secret directives of the Cuban government, found himself playing a major role in very «delicate» operations: for example, as ambassador to Algiers at the time of Ben Bella or in charge of relations with Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974) in Spanish exile.

Che’s years as Minister of Industry are years in which he takes up his studies of Marxism again, as well as of the various other subjects necessary for the management of his Ministry: a field in which he had to learn everything from scratch, but in which he demonstrated really exceptional learning skills. It is obvious that the particular nature of the position led him to deepen his study of Marx and followers, especially in the field of critique of political economy. But as we shall see in the next scene, this did not produce economicistic-type derivations in him. Far from it.

And even his assiduous and hyperactive frequentation of factories and other production centres did not make him a «workerist». From this point of view his anti-dogmatic and originally unorthodox Marxist training constituted an effective vaccine against deformations that would have been «natural» in a neophyte of communist statism, admirer for a whole first phase of the Soviet model and the works of its ideologues in the economic field; these began to circulate in Cuba in Spanish long before the country officially became part of the Comecon [Cmea] (1972). This part of Guevarian activity and economic formation has been largely reconstructed by his former deputy minister, Orlando Borrego (b. 1936) in the 2001 book Che, el camino del fuego (in particular in the first five chapters).

The best anthology of Che texts devoted to economic issues was instead published on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his death, edited by historian Juan José Soto Valdespino (/Temas económicos, 1988). Obviously, it could not contain the Guevarian texts dedicated to the polemics with Soviet economic conceptions, publication of which was delayed by the Cuban government until 2006, when the Ussr had no longer existed for about 15 years (I will talk about this later). For a more up-to-date study of Che’s economic ideas, one can resort to Introducción al pensamiento marxista (Introduction to Marxist thought) edited by Néstor Kohan for the Cátedra Ernesto Che Guevara of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.

Outside the commitment in the economic field, Che continued to read as much as possible of Marx and official Marxism, being totally identified for this phase in the policy of rapprochement with the Soviets that Fidel Castro undertook on the island starting from the first months after revolutionary victory. On this road Guevara played a leading role in proposing that the State publishing company should publish theoretical texts produced beyond the «Iron Curtain», but above all in the difficult task of «rehabilitating» the local Communist party (the Partido socialista popular Psp). In addition to the original hostility towards the M26-7 and the absence as a ruling group (but not as grassroots militants) from the revolutionary process, this party had also to be forgiven for the support given in 1940-44 to the first government of Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) – in which it had taken part with two ministers – and subsequent relationships of ambiguous collaboration with the second government (after the Batista coup of 1952), even coming to oppose attempts to overthrow him such as, for example, the attack on Moncada Barracks.

Did Guevara know about these past collaborationist episodes of the Psp? It is difficult to say to what extent and up to which point, also because after the victory of 1959 all the possible compromising documents about the Psp of Blas Roca (1908-1987) disappeared from the Havana main library, as I was able to verify in person in 1968. But after the seizure of power, Che’s identification with the Soviet model was so strong as to push him to underestimate these episodes of Cuban Stalinism. He was to come to regret it bitterly later, when the hardest attacks on his management of industry were to come precisely from the former Psp while, after his disappearance, the apparatus of international Soviet propaganda would launch a campaign of slander about his alleged loss of reason, so much so as to have become ... Trotskyist.

But in the early 1960s, none of this seemed to be on the horizon for minister Guevara. In fact, these are the years in which his Marxism is homologous with the dogmatic and scholastic standards of Soviet brand «dialectical materialism» – the notorious Diamat – pushing him to formulations imbued with vulgar evolutionism and mechanicism that only later he would reject.

The basic and most famous text for this «scientistic» reduction of Marxism is «Notes for the study of the ideology of the Cuban Revolution» (in Verde Olivo, October 1960) in which the adherence to Marxism in the ambit of the social sciences is equated with the definition that the scientist self-attributes in the field of natural, physical or mathematical sciences. The comparisons that Guevara provides are very significant when he states that no one will ask a physicist if he is «Newtonian» or a biologist if he is «Pasteurian» because they are these by definition and by natural impulse. And even if new research and new facts lead to changing the initial positions, there will always remain a background of truth in the tools used to reach presumed scientific certainties. And this is what happens to those who consider themselves Marxist and actually are. The «scientific-naturalistic» comparison with Marxism continues citing Einstein with relativity and Planck with quantum theory which, according to Guevara, have taken nothing away from the greatness of Newton: they have surpassed him but only in the sense that «the English scientist represents the necessary passage» for this further development (Escritos y discursos, IV, p. 203).

Guevara does not escape from a conclusion definable as deterministic and evolutionistic at the same time, when he states that there are «truths so evident, so inherent in the conscience of peoples, that it is useless to discuss them. One must be ‘Marxist’ with the same naturalness with which one is ‘Newtonian’ in physics or ‘Pasteurian’ in biology» (pp. 202-3). This is a not even a refined way of affirming a dogmatic conception of social science, that is to say, in the case of Marxism.

Continuing the analogy with the mathematics in which we have had «a Greek Pythagoras, an Italian Galileo, an English Newton, a German Gauss, a Russian Lobachevsky, an Einstein, etc.», Guevara states that also in the social sciences the itinerary of a great process of accumulation of knowledge could be traced from Democritus to Marx – but this, I add, in total disregard for the discontinuity that Marxism attributes to the historical dialectic marked by ruptures, leaps, rearrangements and syntheses. But by now Marx has become for Che not only the scholar who «interprets history and understands its dynamics», but also he who «foresees future events», who «prophesies» (further on he even speaks of the «predictions of Marx the scientist»), who is «architect of his own destiny» and, besides interpreting nature, now has the tools to «transform it». Hence the obvious reference to the need for revolutionary action as a logical consequence of so much scientific knowledge of nature, history and the world made possible by Marxism, now considered definetely to be a science.

This flatly materialistic vision was certainly derived from very simplistic interpretations of works by Engels (Anti-Dühring, Dialectics of nature, Socialism: utopian and scientific) and Lenin (Materialism and empirio-criticism) which are not cited here, but which Ernesto had read in Guatemala and Mexico. The equation of Marxism with the mathematical, physical or biological sciences – which had been a common currency for Marxology in the Stalinist period – now opens into the grossest philosophical evolutionism when Guevara draws a line of continuity between «Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong», even going so far as to include the» new Soviet and Chinese rulers» in this pyramid scheme of presumably Marxist thinking (Escritos y discursos, p. 204]): of all these, according to Che, one should have followed «the body of doctrine» and even «the example» (but on Kruschev he would change his mind shortly thereafter ...).

It would be ungenerous to continue with other quotations from this naive listing of the presumed scientific-naturalistic merits of Marxism – which strangely however is never called here «dialectical materialism» according to what instead Stalinist tradition would have prescribed – and if anything we should take it up with how many (many, too many) have indicated in this article one of the top peaks reached by Guevara in his re-elaboration of Marxism. Unfortunately, C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) – who included this unique Che text in his famous anthology The Marxists (1962) – is one of these. (Guevara will reciprocate by including in his own Apuntes (Notes) of 1966 – which we will speak of – various passages taken from The Marxists.)

With regard to the «Marxism» of Marx there is not much more, because the rest of the article launches itself into a very imaginative analysis of the progress of the Cuban revolution which I leave out here without remorse. In the past, however, I devoted some attention to the hasty manner in which Che had dismissed some statements in that text from of the two founding fathers related to Mexico and Bolivar. Here I limit myself to mentioning the piece by Guevara, but for my comment I refer to the detailed analysis I made in Che Guevara. Pensamiento y política de la utopía, pp. 54-9. With a word of caution: as incredible as it may seem, the piece of criticism of Marx that I am about to mention was suppressed, in an evident attempt at censorship, by the editors of Escritos y discursos in 9 volumes of Editorial de Ciencias Sociales (which is the collection that is normally used for the works of Che after 1957): see to believe vol. IV, p. 203. Moreover, in the past the Guevara Foundation has identified various other examples of censure in this «official» collection and in other Cuban editions of the Works of Che, then making the denunciation of such a scandalous and ridiculous situation public (see CGQF No. 6/2006, pp. 73-84).

But since the right hand of bureaucracy often ignores what the left does, the piece can be found entirely reproduced in the collection of Works 1957-1967, curated not by chance by the Casa de las Américas in 1970, when it was directed by an intelligent and anti-conformist woman like Haydée Santamaría. From there I report it in full, both because it is a beautiful piece by Che (which does not seem to have softened the soul of the censors), and as a humble tribute to Marx on the occasion of his 200th birthday:

Marx as a thinker, as a scholar of the social sciences and of the capitalist system in which he lived, can obviously be accused of some inaccuracies. We Latin Americans, for example, cannot agree with his judgment on Bolivar and with the analysis which, together with Engels, Marx made of Mexicans, taking for granted certain theories about race or nationality which are inadmissible today. But great men, discoverers of luminous truths, survive in spite of their small errors, which serve to make them more human: they can make mistakes without this damaging our clear awareness of the level reached by these giants of thought. And for this reason we say that the essential truths of Marxism are an integral part of the cultural and scientific community of peoples and we accept them with the naturalness that comes from something that needs no further discussion (pp. 93-4).

The criticisms that Guevara addressed to Marx-Engelsian texts on Latin America could refer to some entries compiled by Marx and Engels for the New American Cyclopaedia (published in New York in 16 volumes between 1858 and 1863, under the direction of Charles Anderson Dana [1819-1897], also director for some twenty years of the New York Daily Tribune), but above all to a letter from Marx to Engels dated December 2, 1854 (in Complete Works, XXXIX, p. 434).

After having reconstructed the complicated story, in my comment I openly agreed with the two great friends and disagreed with Guevara. But I added a much more serious consideration about the fact that, in the essay dedicated by Che to analysis of the ideology of the Cuban revolution, there was no mention of the great libertadores (liberators), no mention of any Latin American thinker or writer involved in the anti-Spanish ideological struggle, not even José Martí (1853-1895) himself. Greek philosophers, physicists and mathematicians from various eras were mentioned, as well as a lot of Marx, but no one indigenous to Cuba or Latin America. A foolishness certainly produced by the anxiety of the neophyte who wanted to show himself more Marxist than Marx, flaunting an acquired familiarity with his work, but that cannot fail to leave one taken aback. More than the vulgar materialist conception of Marxism exhibited therein, it is the absence of references to Latin American ideologies or political conceptions which constitutes the most serious deficiency of that unfortunate text, which was so popular at the time and may still continue to delight.

This was not, however, an isolated case because in other texts of the period there were similar reductive and distorted visions of the Marxist method of analysis, accompanied by a clear ignorance of the great tradition of debate that had developed during the whole of the 20th century starting from the original Marxian legacy.

See, for example, the most interesting interview ever with Guevara. I refer of course to my friend Maurice Zeitlin (b. 1935) who interviewed Che on September 14, 1961, and immediately published the interview in Root and Branch (photostatic copy in CGQF No. 9/2014, pp. 219-26), a magazine based at the University of Berkeley in California, which was repeated on various occasions (see for example, Cuba, an American Tragedy). For the occasion, despite having touched on political topics of great theoretical actuality, Guevara repeated in synthesis the previous materialistic vulgate, including the comparison with biology which, as a doctor, he was evidently fond of:

We regard Marxism as a science in development, just as, say, biology is a science. One biologist adds to what others have done, while working in his own special field. Our specialty is Cuba (p. 54).

To make the comparison with biology even clearer (and more serious), in the subsequent answer Guevara extended it also to Lenin: a «eulogy» that he would have to regret later (in 1964) when he was to clearly distance himself from fundamental aspects of the Leninist vulgate:

The value of Lenin is enormous - in the same sense in which a major biologist’s work is valuable to other biologists. He is probably the leader who has brought the most to the theory of revolution. He was able to apply Marxism in a given moment to the problems of the State, and to emerge with laws of universal validity.

This is the interview in which Guevara, pressed by Zeitlin (who in fact offered an exemplary model of behaviour for a true «interviewer» who does not want to remain passive and supine in the face of the answers of the person being interviewed), had to recognise that he was not familiar with great figures of socialism like Eugene Debs (1855-1926) or Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919). As for the latter, he formulated only a kind of ungenerous epitaph, saying that «she was a great revolutionary and she died a revolutionary, as a consequence of her political mistakes» (p. 54). Six years later, the same words could have been applied to the Bolivian Guevara, just as ungenerously.

The use of the formula «dialectical materialism» appears widely in a speech given by Guevara during a prize-giving at the Ministry of Industry on January 31, 1962 (Escritos y discursos, VI, pp. 79-90). After enthusiastically praising a book by Blas Roca, Che presents a sort of synthesis of the degree of understanding of Marxism he had achieved in that phase, totally unbalanced on the side of the last Engels, as was now unanimously accepted in Soviet Marxology.

The passage that follows (p. 81) brings together:

a) the naively materialistic (and in any case unfounded) theory of the existence of two sciences, the bourgeois and the proletarian;
b) the attribution to Engels even the paternity of theory for the origin of life on earth;
c) the applicability of the dialectical materialistic method to all aspects of reality (with Stalin we had reached linguistics and genetics);
d) and the de facto identification of such a method with non-capitalist science, thus with «proletarian» science, even if not further specified.

In short, Guevara shows an integral adherence to the theory of Diamat and its claims of cultural hegemony over every aspect of individual and social life.

The concept of life that dialectical materialism offers us is different from the concept of life that capitalism offers us: the concept of the sciences of dialectical materialism is also different. Many years ago, Engels had defined life as a way of being of albuminoid material; it was a new concept, something that at the time revolutionised ideas [...]. For this reason we must look for such bases, learn to think correctly through the method of dialectical materialism in every field, not only in political discussions or on specific occasions, but for applying it as a method in every scientific or practical task that we have to fulfil. All interpretations of the technique, and above all interpretation of the economy, change enormously if examined in the light of dialectical materialism or under the false lights of capitalist conceptions.

Moreover, if the Che Minister of Industry displayed uncritical adherence to the conceptions of Soviet Marxism in the first years of the revolution this was due to the fact that those conceptions were naively imported and accepted in all their crude and brutal mechanicism by the entire Cuban leadership. By some passively, by others actively: among these and first of all Guevara and Raúl Castro (b. 1931), considered from the beginning the only other «communist» present in the leadership of M26-7. They were then to be joined by Osmany Cienfuegos (b. 1931), immediately after the death of his brother Camilo, coming from the Psp and future leader of the Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (Ospaaal).

These are also the years when ideological work (propaganda, cadre schools and publication of the main magazines) ended up in the hands of the leaders shaped in the old Psp who in the meantime had been called to be part of the new Cuban leadership. They were entrusted practically – and for a few crucial years – with the management of the properly «cultural» activity of the party in view of a true fact: namely that they were the only ones to have some sort of theoretical preparation.

But even this is a page that Che was to rewrite radically in his ideal testament of March 1965 (Socialism and man in Cuba, see the edition edited by Argentine José «Pancho» Aricó [1931-1991]), denouncing the «socialist realism» and official culture that, under the pretext of being «within reach of all», was in reality «within the reach of officials» that is, of the bureaucracy. In that text he was also to make a harsh criticism of «the scholasticism that has held back the development of Marxist philosophy» and the fact that «a formally exact representation of nature» has been converted into «a mechanical representation of the social reality that was wanted to be shown».

On May 30, 1963, Guevara had written a laudatory preface, which verged on ingenuity and apologetic intent, for a book published in Cuba by the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution (Pursc). This was the name of the intermediate party that existed practically only on paper - from March 1962 to October 1965 - in the phase in which Fidel Castro imposed the unification of a single organisation of the three main political currents that had survived in Cuba: the pro-Soviet communists of the Psp, Directorio Revolucionario 13 de Marzo and M26-7. Those who did not share that choice (the most famous case was Carlos Franqui [1921-2010], author of Libro de lo Doce) was excluded or emigrated abroad.

The title was high-sounding (El Partido Marxista-Leninista), but in reality it was a question of some of Fidel Castro’s speeches added to one of the most «celebrated» liturgical texts in the Soviet world, namely Manual of Marxism-Leninism by Otto Wilhelm Kuusinen (1881-1964). He had been the historic leader of Finnish Stalinism who remained unscathed through decades of purges and political wrangling, «famous» for having been placed at the head of the puppet government created by the Soviets when they had vainly attempted to occupy Finland (1939-40) according to the clauses of the Secret Protocol that had accompanied the Pact signed by Stalin (Molotov) with Hitler (von Ribbentrop).

The preface by Guevara to that pamphlet can be considered as the lowest point he reached in the exaltation of «naturalistic materialism», that is, of Soviet-type Marxism-Leninism. A date that marks the limit in the theoretical degradation of his Marxism and after which there began to re-emerge with difficulty the anti-conformist, lucid and anti-dogmatic Marxist, who had admired the Mariateguian Hugo Pesce years earlier and had listened, but not sufficiently, to the theoretical counsels of young leftist member of Apra Hilda Gadea.

Guevara’s commitment to bringing Cuba closer to the Ussr and identifying the ideological aims of the Cuban revolution with the Marxist vulgate spread by the Soviet propaganda apparatus was enthusiastically reconstructed (and in large part invented) in a book of «Guevarological-Marxist paleontology», published in Russian in 1972 and in Spanish (Editorial Progreso of Moscow) in 1975. The title was simple - Årn∂sto C∂ G∂vara (Ernesto Če Gevara [Ernesto Che Guevara]) - but the background of the author, Iosif P. Lavretskij, was less simple, being the pseudonym of a Soviet secret police agent, also hidden behind another name as we have shown in CGQF No. 4/20011. The pages in which the Kgb emissary most celebrates the pro-Sovietic commitment of Che are 183-205 of the Russian edition and 178-98 of the Spanish edition.

1 For some time it was believed that Iosif P. Lavretskij was a Soviet scholar, although there remained the suspicion that he could be identified with a Lithuanian-Russian author of works on Guevara: Iosif Romual’dovič Grigulevič (1913-1988). At one point it was clear that Grigulevič and Lavretskij were two different names and surnames of one author: the first was a physical person, an agent of the Nkvd and then of the Kgb (with the name of «Teodoro Castro Bonnefil»), involved in various important murders (Nin, Trotsky, etc.) and at some point commissioned to kill also the president of Yugoslavia Tito; the second was one of his pseudonyms. The library catalogues of Harvard University in the United States report that the two names identify the same author. On p. 427 of his book La vida en rojo, una biografía del Che Guevara (1997), Jorge Castañeda Gutman (b. 1953) wrote that «Lavretskij» was the pseudonym behind which Soviet historian and Kgb agent Josef Grigulevič hid. In June 2001 in a speech at the conference of the Guevara Foundation in Acquapendente, Zbigniew M. Kowalewski (b. 1943), the leading Polish scholar of Che, confirmed that «Lavretskij» was the pseudonym of Grigulevič, a former Soviet secret police officer. In the same meeting, Czech scholar Vladimír Klofáč reported that Miloslav Ransdorf (1953-2016), vice president of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, had indicated the name Lavretskij/Grigulevič (thus associating the two names) in the note on p. 50 of the book Muž Svědomí (Man of Conscience). Ernesto Che Guevara, Nakladatelství Futura, Prague 2000. All these hypotheses were definitively confirmed by the publication of the Archive of Vasilij Nikitič Mitrochin (1922-2004) in 1999-2000 and, posthumously, in 2005. I add a little curiosity: in the «Reading plan in Bolivia», Che included Pancho Villa by the same I. Lavretskij in the books listed in November 1966.